HELENA -- On Monday, Montana High School Association executive director Mark Beckman sent a letter to the schools in the Treasure State, outlining the return-to-activities guidelines the MHSA executive board has put in place for the upcoming school year.
Beckman sat down with MTN Sports on Monday morning to clarify some of the changes, including the five-tier plan the MHSA unveiled. That conversation can be found below.
Mark Beckman: "Along with the National Federation of State High School Associations, the MHSA executive board believes the resumption of sports and other activities is crucial to the growth, development and mental and emotional wellness of our Montana youth."
MTN Sports: A lot of work behind the scenes, I'm assuming, a lot of phone calls, probably with not only local and state departments, but maybe even some of the out-of-state -- the Dakotas, Idaho and Wyoming, and places like that. What led to where we're at by releasing this?
Beckman: "Of course we are always in contact with our state health department and our administration, the governor's office, and then our local health departments, too. We can see what they've been doing throughout the summer, especially with American Legion Baseball and how that's been going along. And then also looking at our CDC guidelines, the National Federation of state high school associations sports medicine advisory committee, I've been on numerous zooms with all 50 of our executive directors. We go through every week, every Tuesday, we have a call seeing and getting some information from each of their states, because everyone's a little different, but there's some things that we are using from their particular states. And then of course our Sections 7 and 8, which is our western states, we've been on a lot of zooms, too, and pulling some information there along with that. I have to give a lot of credit to my staff because they've been out looking at their particular sports or activities that they're responsible for and gleaning information from different sources, also, to see what we can do to help minimize the risk of the transmission of the coronavirus."
MTN Sports: That statement that we had you read, how important it is trying to get kids back to a sense of normalcy, it's not going to be the same, but obviously the NFHS even thinks that it's important to have the resumption of sports.
Beckman: "It's extremely important, the emotional well-being of our students, for sure, as we're going back to school. And of course there's different models for returning to school. As you see throughout the state, I think we'll be in a hybrid where they'll be in school some time and online learning other time. But of course those local educational leaders are doing their homework, too, to try to figure out what's best. But once they do get back in there to get out for a couple hours each evening for practices and then get some competition going, it's extremely important. The studies are showing that now, where they're being able to from the spring sports areas in spring activities to say what happened with these kids, what are some of the correlations between no activity participation and their emotional and mental well-being, the information is that this is an important piece of it."
MTN Sports: It's going to be challenging because, like you said, a lot of schools are letting you opt in or out of the, in-school education. Is the brick and mortar rules still in place where you waived it in the spring?
Beckman: "We have a rule in the MHSA that says you must be in the school, in the bricks and mortar, for at least two periods a day, 10 hours per week. We actually had our board waive that in May -- we knew this was coming. So we wanted to make sure that if there were some schools that were going totally remote, but still wanted to provide activities, that they had the opportunity to do that."
MTN Sports: That could be the challenge where some of the schools are also letting you choose, you can do either in-school or remote. How difficult is that going to be? Is it just throwing one more wrench into an, I guess if a school has 75 percent in class and the other 25 remote, and then those doing remote learning are having to show up for the practices afterwards and stuff, it's going to be more challenging than they're used to.
Beckman: "And I think too, in regard to that, it's a local issue because it may depend on what's going on in that local community at the time. So I think it's all workable. That's what's important for us. It's going to be workable if we take some of these requirements, these restrictions and the considerations into place. So I think it will be very workable."
MTN Sports: The five tiers, that was kind of the main stressing point of the email and the letter that you sent out to the schools. Maybe explain those tiers. What it would look like to go from Tier 1 to Tier 3 or Tier 5?
Beckman: "I first want to give a little bit of credit to Kent Paulson from the Frontier Conference, because we have been in contact, too, and Kent's a great guy, and he was talking about how they were looking at tiers. And I like that terminology. So that's when I started working on the tiers for the MHSA. The tiers simply are saying, what's going to happen in the future? If some other things come around where there's an interruption of play because of the virus becoming more prevalent in certain communities, or we have an interruption, the governor looks at the information from the state and local health department and says it's time now to pull back a little bit, well then, what's going to happen to sports and activities? That's what the tiers are about. Tier 1, we're starting, we have all these restrictions and requirements and considerations in place, but let's say we have an interruption. Then we can look at Tier 2 where we're going to cancel non-conference games and then move forward. If we have a longer interruption, we start and maybe there's a longer interruption, then we can look at Tier 3 where we cancel all non-conference games and shorten the conference schedules. Then Tier 4 would be even longer. Maybe we start and play for quite a while and then get a real long interruption. Then we're going to have to look at shortening that conference season, maybe even ending it at that time and look at different playoff formats. Are we going to have a state or a divisional and district volleyball tournaments at one site? Are we going to do a playoff, come to one team, the highest seed. So we have all those in place. Tier 5 is where it's been, maybe a tough year like this spring was, but we can maybe have some kind of play at the end and maybe even look at a postseason schedule."
MTN Sports: I don't want to jinx anything, but is there an undocumented Tier 6? That basically is what happened last year, last spring.
Beckman: "Well yeah, we don't want to be negative and talk about a Tier 6. Our board has looked at some of the other options. People will ask this question, will it be looked at, maybe moving to spring like some of the other state associations and some of the colleges have? We have, but right now we're saying those kids in spring had to lose their whole season last year. So right now where we're at, we believe we can have fall, but that could be an option in the future to say, 'You know, we're going to try to look at that, but hopefully we won't get to that point.'"
MTN Sports: One of the things that people will notice right away is no multi-team events like the soccer jamboree in Great Falls or your non-conference, pre-season volleyball tournaments and stuff like that. Important to not have that many teams at this point in time gathered together?
Beckman: "Absolutely. That was a real important thing for me to say that, if we're going to make sure that the disease is not going to be easily transmitted, you don't want to bring a ton of kids together in one spot, in regard to the sport and how the sport's played. That's important because if you look at football, we have some junior varsity jamborees, there's just too many kids there at one site. You have some soccer jamborees, same thing. Then you look at volleyball, you have those multi-team events that have a lot of teams there that are there all day long, constantly in contact with each other. That's something we have to limit. The question will be then how can you have a multi-team cross country or a multi-team golf invite? And it's very, very easy because you have less chance of transmission. For example, in cross country we have a very strict regimen that they're going to have to go through in regard to being in their own team, staging area while masked. Then, before they go to the starting line in a corral, masked, then they're going to a starting line with no more than 25 runners, depending on if they can handle 25, if they can't, it will be less. And then we're going to start and once they're done, they're gone. They exit and do not congregate. And they only are out there for about 30-40 minutes, so the chance of transmission is lower in that type of thing. The same thing for golf, for an 18-hole course, 90 athletes on the course, 45 on a 9-hole course. However, when they come, they're going to have to do a shotgun start, no congregation at the clubhouse. They'll have to have a point of entry coming in from different areas of the course to those holes. And then the five kids will have to play from the same team. We usually mix them up where the top scores play with each other, no more. It's going to be from the same team. So now we're minimizing that risk of transmission."
MTN Sports: The other question you'll get is what about when we get to post season volleyball, district, divisional, state tournaments, a lot of teams combined, volleyball is the one that really comes to mind being indoors with a bunch of teams. Could we see a different format depending on where we are?
Beckman: "Definitely because we'll keep evaluating where we're at in regard to the virus, and the number of cases and all that. And if we get to that point where we're at districts, we don't want to bring, for example, eight teams into one location and they have that risk, then we'd look at a playoff structure like we do for, you know, Class AA had done volleyball and basketball and those different sports, softball, done playoffs for a long time before they went to a divisional. The No. 1 seed plays No. 8 at the highest seed's gym, the No. 2 versus No. 7, high-seed hosts, and then we go through there. We're not making any of those decisions at this time, though, we're going to wait, see where we're at when we get to that particular point."
MTN Sports: It's also going to be up to the local city-county health, and then ultimately up to the schools to propose hosting events like even a regular-season volleyball match. Your county might not allow for, obviously, the full house, but it might be tapped somewhere where they have to decide how many tickets, each player or whatever it is, maybe first-come, first-serve -- I don't know what is the best way to go. But is that ultimately going to be up to the host school to determine this is how many people we can handle? T
Beckman: "For the fans, it was an easy recommendation for me to make to our board because, going through the American Legion Baseball season and following that, each site had different county regulations saying, 'You can have this many (fans), or you can do this or that,' which, that's their call. We want to make sure we leave that there so that schools can work with them, submit plans like the baseball teams had to do and get those approved. And so then, the determination of the number of tickets, we made this clear in all the summer meetings, when we went out and spoke to the schools during the summer, this probably could be coming, so work on it through your district policies or your division and classification policy, that this is what we think might be the best way to go."
MTN Sports: And then there's social distancing, and obviously it was mentioned multiple times in the letter, things like football, extending the box, where the kids can stand farther apart, the coaches and stuff like that, volleyball, you already mentioned cross country, like as soon as you're done and you're back on your team bus, you're golfing with your teammates. How important is that aspect of trying to prevent this as much as possible?
Beckman: "Well, it's pretty simple that if we want to play and we want to continue to play, we've got to follow these rules and guidelines. The things that will get you in trouble, that I know and that everyone knows, is when all of a sudden those (guidelines) become lax and we don't follow those, then we have a case or whatever, that's when we're going to have a problem. I believe that our kids, they want to play, our coaches are ready to put these requirements into place, our administrators are going to enforce these. I really believe that because everybody wants to play. We don't want to get sabotaged and have the fall season go like our spring."
MTN Sports: As contagious as this is, I think we'd be all kidding ourselves if we didn't expect it to somewhere interrupt a school, a team, just one individual, whatever it is in that instance. What do we look at for an entire team having to get tested or whatever it might be for that program to be able to carry on with their season, should that happen? What are those guidelines going to look like?
Beckman: "Some states have put in a mandatory quarantine and all that, but we're going to leave that to the experts. The experts are your local health departments and some have a little different, they're not much different, but if there's a local team that has it, or has a case, or they may quarantine the kid out of the particular house, you know, maybe dad has it or something, there's all kinds of different scenarios. So we're going to let that happen there. But if they're quarantined, let's say the entire team is quarantined for 14 days, then they can come back and resume play once their local health department, through whatever requirements, you know, they're going to get tested maybe twice or whatever that may be, they can return to play. And then the conferences, we'll have to look at adjusting seeding accordingly."
MTN Sports: You know the literature better than I do, what's going to bring the most, of the things that we haven't already discussed, what else is going to bring the most questions to your email inbox, your phone line?
Beckman: "I think there'll be a worry about how we're changing, how some of these sports are being played, especially volleyball and the multi-team events, going in to see the different competitors and our competition and all that. Same thing with golf. I think we'll get questions about that. Probably some thinking that it should be OK to go ahead full bore. We're proceeding cautiously, and I think we're proceeding on the side of, we're going to err on the side of caution. So there'll be some questions about that. Then they'll ask about what if a team can't play and is quarantined. Then in that case, it will be no contest. They're not going to be forfeits. If a team decides they don't want to go to a certain area where contests are allowed, be played by their local health department, that will then be a forfeit. It's just so that we have those things clear. But the one thing I will mention is, Iowa has high school softball and baseball during the summer, they just finished their high school baseball tournament this past weekend, and it went well during the season. I think they had seven or eight teams that had to be quarantined out of the, you know, they have a lot more high schools than we do. It all went well. Their tournament went well. Things went really well. So we're really pleased to hear that because of the number of people, the comparison to where we're at in Montana, we think that's a great example."
MTN Sports: Could you see, like we're talking about socially distancing and limited attendance participation, could there be that no crowds admitted type of thing?
Beckman: "I think that is an option, especially in some communities if there's a high rate of cases or whatever, I think they might be able to say no fans. The one good thing about that is we have, I think 139 of our schools have the pixellot cameras through the National Federation Network, and that's exciting so that people still be able to see the games. And then a lot of people don't know this, but the NFHS Network actually will provide a free camera to every high school in the state that doesn't have one, in fact, every high school in the United States that doesn't have one. And I think we're up to, maybe 15 to 20 schools that have requested that. So there will be options if that ever comes to be."